A story from Guatemala
by Colin Pope.
Guatemala. What a beautiful country, and what lovely people.
It is one of the most unique places I’ve ever been. Back in March, I decided to take a leap of faith- quit my job to pursue something that’s been at the forefront of my mind for quite some time: the outdoors industry. A couple of years ago, I had heard about an organization called Quetzaltrekkers from another guide during an outdoors leadership course I attended in Wyoming with the National Outdoor Leadership School. She spoke highly of it and immediately piqued my interest. It’s a unique organization that possesses an intriguing dichotomy: they hike, and help kids. A no brainer, right?
I saved up some money for the next couple of years and hopped on a plane to Guatemala City to pursue this dream. I will say that I was absolutely terrified of taking such a leap. It took all of the courage I had and then some. I wasn’t exactly the person to venture outside of my comfort zone and I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into, but trusted that my heart was guiding me in the right direction.
I knew I had made the right decision when I walked into Quetzaltrekkers for the first time and all of the guides were sitting at the long table where they were casually wearing costumes(yes, costumes) and eating homemade Indian food on a Monday night at 9:30PM. Talk about comfort zones! This is what it was all about. Exposing myself to new experiences and people and chasing after a dream in the process. Sitting at that quirky table with my heart racing while trying to act cool, I was welcomed with open arms and love.
To the best of my knowledge at QT, we are the only non-profit guiding company on this side of the world. The profit that we earn sustains and supports a school of 180 at-risk children in grades kindergarten through sixth with the exception of a few older youth who all come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Around 20 of the students live at the Hogar Abierto which is a student home for the kids who have no home to turn to. There, they are supplied with high quality rooms, food, spiritual guidance, love and support. At minimum, we spend a couple days a week with the Hogar kids. We rent out a soccer field every Wednesday night and play with them for an hour, and they are quite talented to say the least. On Thursdays we swap making food for each other either at QT or the Hogar. The kids always express their appreciation for what we do, and there aren’t too many other comparable feelings to feeling their gratitude.
The clients on our treks came from all over the world to experience Guatemala. Whether it’s through the rural highlands, up to Central America’s highest point on Volcán Tajumulco, or through La Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, we made it happen while simultaneously educating about the incredibly strong and inspirational place that has such a vibrant culture yet a recently dark past.
The Central Intelligence Agency in the United States helped overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, in 1954 thanks to a coup d’état which also ended the Guatemalan Revolution that began 10 years prior. Árbenz supported land reform which benefited the indigenous people and, unfortunately for the Mayan people, his support went against U.S. based United Fruit Company which went against their financial ambitions.
Six years later, the civil war began when rebellious forces attempted to overthrow the insidious military regime lead by Carlos Castillo Armas. Over the next 36 years, over 200,000 people died and half a million were driven from their homes and many more were brutally raped and tortured. Of the 200,000, 83% were the indigenous Mayans. It was a genocide. There is simply no denying it.
Prior to going there, I was naive to this brutal and gruesome past. Only hearing fragments about it from time to time. I am from the United States and it only makes sense that the Guatemalan history isn’t ubiquitously taught as my country acted as the catalyst triggering a few decades worth of unimaginable pain inflicted upon the indigenous people. Yet, my experience there was nothing but positive and I can’t help but feel hopeful for their future. they are filled with love and this unbelievable fortitude that I wholeheartedly admire and can’t help but feel grateful for being able to live beside them.
I take a lot of pride in educating clients on our treks about this country’s history and interacting with the locals. I have nothing but absolute love for the Guatemaltecos. Whether I was walking down the street or up through the mountains, they embraced me with warmth. That says everything you need to know right there. Stateside, one is exposed to an overwhelming amount of xenophobic and racist rhetoric about how she or he shouldn’t visit such a country because of how dangerous it is. Sure, there are dangerous cities, dangerous people, but those exist everywhere, and I always felt safe there.
Guatemala has become an integral part of me. I didn’t spend nearly enough time there, which will only inspire me to return to what feels like a second home. I look back and think of all the relationships and growth I made in Guate. It was the singlehandedly best and most cherished experience of my life. If anybody has the opportunity to go, just do it. Maybe you’ll feel the same way I do.
For more photos and updates from Colin, follow him on Instagram at @colinjamesp